DeShone Kizer and Winning in the Red Zone

Confidence is a necessary trait for quarterbacks. If a quarterback doesn’t believe he can hit the throw, he won’t hit it. Quarterbacks have to take a number of factors into account before determining the confidence they have in themselves to complete a pass. Anything from the intended target, opposing talent, coverage scheme, and so on and so forth, can boost or diminish a quarterback’s confidence in a particular route concept.

Part of confidence is knowing what the defense is going to do. Quarterbacks can operate much smoother when they have a good idea of what they are in for. Of course, defenses can disguise and shift coverages, but every quarterback does his best to identify coverages pre-snap and reassess the coverage post-snap to determine where the ball will go.

In the red zone, confidence is necessary. The field is shortened and mistakes are magnified. Quarterbacks have to be even more aware, precise and, most of all, confident than they are between the 20’s. The difference between one extra hitch, a slight misread or a slight hesitation can be the difference between a touchdown or settling for a field goal.

How DeShone Kizer Attacks the Red Zone

Cover-2 is one of many coverages that a defense can employ. Below is a diagram from Inside The Pylon of a basic Cover-2 look:

Cover 2

The two deep safeties have a lot of responsibility on this play. They must be able to cover one half of the field from beyond about 10 yards. The position of the safeties help take away the seams (around the numbers), but leave some room for the quarterback to fit the ball down the hash marks or on the sideline. Quarterbacks have to be able to manipulate the safeties to stay away from their desired route, as well as have the arm to fit the tight windows down the hashes or to the boundary.

In the red zone, Cover-2 bodes well for the defense because the shortened field makes throws to the boundary even tougher, while the bevy of linebackers over the middle give a clouded view of the middle of the field. That doesn’t seem to matter to future NFL quarterback DeShone Kizer.

Kizer19.gif

Kizer talked about this play during his ESPN visit at Jon Gruden’s QB Camp. As Gruden and Kizer went on to dissect, this play should have been dead. Trying to fit this ball into that window requires great confidence, timing and arm talent. Kizer put all of that on display here.

Through his drop back, Kizer must quickly determine the position of the field side safety and decide if he can make the throw around the safety. Kizer notices that the safety is still in a stationary position by the time his drop is finished. Without second guessing, Kizer fires over the cornerback and wide of the safety, perfectly placing the ball in a spot where only wide receiver Will Fuller could get to it. Few quarterbacks have the talent to complete this pass, let alone the gall to even attempt it. Great quarterbacks can hit throws that aren’t really there, and Kizer has that ability.

Kizer can attack the area between the two deep safeties, too. During Notre Dame’s battle against Texas at the beginning of the season, Texas tried to stop Kizer with a two deep safety look in the red zone. Although the receiver couldn’t hold onto the ball, Kizer fired in a dart that ranks among some of the best passes from any player in this class.

Once again, Kizer attempted to fit a window that few others have the talent or bravado to attempt. Texas rolled out in what looks Cover-2 coverage where the outside linebackers are carrying the vertical threats up the seam to high-low them with the safety on their side of the field. In all reality, this is good coverage. The safety near the left hash is holding outside leverage and the linebacker is playing just under and inside of the receiver. The window for this throw is virtually nonexistent.

Instead of backing down to the coverage, Kizer trusted his ability and fired away. The ball was rifled into the receiver’s mitts, both away from the safety on the left hash and above the linebacker underneath the receiver. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the far safety read this play well and was able to fly over to hit the receiver as he was coming down, ultimately forcing the ball out of his possession for an incompletion. Regardless of the result, Kizer made a special throw to try to give his team the lead.

Of course, Kizer can beat more than just two deep coverages in the red zone. Duke attempted to slow down Kizer’s red zone triumphs by employing a Cover-3 look that was heavily shaded to the short side of the field. To no surprise, Kizer found a way to beat it.

Duke heavily shaded their coverage to the trey (trips with a tight end) side of the formation. With so many defenders to that side of the field, it would take a massive blunder for someone to come open on that side, assuming the defense doesn’t blitz from that side. Kizer is then left with essentially 1-on-1 coverage to the far side of the field.

To make sure credit is given where credit is due, the receiver runs one hell of a route on this play. The way he helped sell the inside slant was perfect and gave credence to Kizer’s pump fake. With Kizer and his receiver coming together to sell the inside slant, the task then becomes fitting the ball somewhere between the defender and the far boundary. Luckily for the Fighting Irish, they had one of the only quarterbacks in the country who could hit this throw–if not the only one.

Not unlike the other examples above, there is no margin for error on this throw. The timing, velocity and placement has to be perfect. Also like the examples above, the sheer confidence that Kizer possesses to believe he can make this throw is mesmerizing. He knows that is going to be a daunting throw, but he wastes no time in going for it.

As the cherry on top of Kizer’s red zone ability, he is a legitimate running threat. Notre Dame often used him as an integrated part of their run game, whether it be speed options, read options, or quarterback power.

Here’s a shot of Notre Dame’s speed option. Kizer measures in at 6’4″, 233 pounds and has enough speed to force defenses to account for him. On this play, Kizer shows his ability to stick hit foot in the ground and get up the field once he decides that he isn’t going to flip the ball to the running back. Once Kizer has his path to the end zone, he wiggles through the traffic and marches into the end zone for a touchdown.

Notre Dame scored plenty of touchdowns over Kizer’s two years as the starter through concepts like this one. Kizer is good at initially reading the key defender, then making himself a lethal runner, if that was the best option for a given play.

DeShone Kizer is a menace in the red zone. He has the intelligence, confidence, arm talent and rushing ability to be a multi-faceted red zone quarterback. No matter the coverage or defensive front, Kizer has proven that he can find a way to get his team into the end zone. Kizer’s maturity and multiplicity in the red zone will give him a great advantage in the NFL, both as a rookie and as he grows into his own as a veteran. There are a bevy of reasons to buy into Kizer as a top prospect, but his best selling point just might be his proficiency in the red zone.

Advertisements

Take What The Defense Gives You

The NFL’s best passers have a common trait, among others: intuitiveness. They know when to go against the grain of whatever they have been trained to believe is “right” in order to take advantage of specific situations.

This is Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield. He is faced with a 3rd-and-5 situation inside Baylor’s 35-yard line; the Sooners are up with a comfortable two touchdown lead near the end of the third quarter. Baylor’s defense has stacked the box and jammed the boundary receiver to the right side of the formation, yet Oklahoma’s slot receiver to the right side (No.3) is given a generous cushion. Not only is there a vertical cushion, but the nickel cornerback is set up to the inside of the receiver.

Lucky for Mayfield, Oklahoma called for a quick out from the slot receiver, making this an easy first down. Except Mayfield didn’t throw it.

Counterargument numero uno would be that Mayfield saw the 1-on-1 jam on the outside and liked his chances. In fact, Mayfield is more than likely coached to take these throws. Anyone who follows my work knows that I love a quarterback who rolls the dice, but there is absolutely no reason to here. Oklahoma already has a 14-point lead and does not need to risk explosive plays when easier ones are almost literally gift wrapped, especially when you are approaching the red zone.

Secondly, there is the concern that the nickel corner is baiting the quarterback into the throw. While that is a valid caution in most every other out route read, it is not in this case. The cornerback is six or seven yards off the ball and lined up about a step inside. That is a lot of ground to make up. If the quarterback does not have the arm talent to hit the out route before a defensive back makes up that much ground, then he is just not a good quarterback. Sorry.

Last and most absurd, there is the question about what the reaction would be if the pass was completed. Simple answer: no different. Results are not sustainable, as they are left up to variables and random chance, to some degree. Process, on the other hand, is absolutely sustainable and better processes more often render better results. Mayfield’s process on this play was too linear. He failed to identify and expose a clear flaw in the defense because he fell back on what he is used to doing in similar, though not identical, situations.

It is no coincidence that Cam Newton, Tony Romo and Tom Brady all dominate the quick out game and are simultaneously among the best handful of NFL quarterbacks. Good quarterbacks see the matchup and expose it; they are essentially free yards to be had. Take what the defense gives you.

Checking Up On Jameis Winston (Part 2 of 4)

Jameis Winston is a blessing to the NFL. 

Man. Listen. Us football fanatics get a handful of players whose play encapsulates everything that makes this sport what it is. The ups and the downs, the brilliant decisions and mind-numbing mistakes, the exciting scrambles and pitiful sacks- all complimented by raw emotion and a fiery, even dangerous, will to win. Eight games through is NFL campaign, Jameis Winston appears to be one of those rare specimen.

Before the “Well, Matt Stafford is exciting too” crowd starts yelling, allow me to clear the air: Winston is not a top level quarterback… yet. To expect him to be elite, or any semblance of it, at this age would be absurd. And yet, albeit juxtaposed by some poor decisions early on, Winston’s tape is littered with throws that maybe a handful of other quarterbacks regularly complete or are even asked to make. It is amazing to see from anyone, let alone from a player who is not yet 22 years old.

The last check up on Winston left a looming feeling of uncertainty. The turnover-prone passer he was labeled to be at Florida State was let out of his timeout corner a bit more than he should have, whether anyone wants to admit it or not. The past four weeks, though, have been euphoric to see from a rookie quarterback. Of course, the turnaround from the first quarter of Jameis’ games to the second quarter of games has been centered around protecting the ball.

After a few “mixed bag” games and whatever the hell his four interception performance versus the Carolina Panthers was, Winston snapped into a heightened sense of pre-snap awareness and summoned an infallible pocket presence. While his brains and poise had always been on display during some parts of games, the past four games have surfaced the best parts of Winston. For Winston, a gunslinger through and through, being able to minimize turnovers and poor calculations has made all the difference.

Winston is not playing any less aggressive, though. He is still firing shots down the field and stressing the defenses. The difference now is that he is already understanding what he is and is not capable of at the NFL level.

JameisQ2-2015-3

Take this throw. This throw has to be perfect because of the angle and limited room to work with due to the sideline. If the ball flies a bit too far, the receiver is forced to account for the boundary or the ball may soar out of bounds altogether. On the flip side, an under thrown ball here is the difference between a touchdown and an interception, assuming the linebacker would have gotten his head around at some point if the receiver had slowed down. Winston trusts that he can fit this throw against this match up and attacks. Touchdown Buccaneers.

To match his confidence, Winston’s nuance is unparalleled for someone his age. It is truly special. Winston displays true nuance in that his mental prowess is that of a 10 year veteran’s, whereas many chalk up nuance to mechanics because it is easily identifiable and, as lame as it may be, is a recognizable buzz word topic that sounds like there is substance to it. Nuance is rooted in being able to naturally expose the defense, and Winston already does that at an absurd level.

JameisQ2-2015-9

On the second play, the safety (#21) is rolling to the play side from the jump as if he knows where the play is going, but Winston keeps his eyes focused away from the “dig” route he will eventually throw. This leads the safety to question himself and move slower than he normally might have. Also, both linebackers stick their feet in the ground instead of continuing to flow toward where the ball will be because of Winston’s misdirection. Winston quickly snaps out of his facade and reveals his intention to hit Mike Evans over the middle. By the time the Giants defense can react to Winston’s action, the ball is soaring down the field in Evans’ hands.

Evans is able to rack up as many yards as he was because of Winston’s placement. Had that throw been behind Evans enough to require him to slow his stride, the safety (#21) would have had time to adjust his and make the tackle. Winston’s placement is consistently at this level. Plays in which Winston completely misses a player are few and far between, and nearly every other pass is as well placed as the throw above, whereas most quarterbacks have a wide spectrum of accuracy.

Winston’s accuracy is not route or depth dependent, either. He deals at all levels of the field, most impressively so at the most critical area of the field: within eight yards of the line of scrimmage. The shallow layer of the field is as important as it is because that is where the most room for error is. A few inches can be the difference between a touchdown and an interception because everything is moving so fast. A ball farther down the field will typically hang in the air long enough to allow for some sort of adjustment, but in a compact area like the shallow level of the field, receivers can’t adjust and the throw has to be there. Winston gets it there with ease.

JameisQ2-2015-8

JameisQ2-2015-12

Winston isn’t even on his spot here! One of New York’s pass rushers is breathing down his neck and forces him to move a few steps away to make the throw. Pressure be damned, Winston does not flinch and drills the throw to Evans, against quality coverage, no less. Winston places throws like this play in and play out, maximizing what his team is getting out of each pass play. Accuracy at this level will always go under appreciated, but let it be known that Winston is going to make a career of beating teams with precision underneath.

Much like the example above, Winston is also going to beat defenses with how well he maneuvers the pocket. This has been especially prominent over the past few weeks. Winston’s handling of the pocket has always been impressive, but he has improved on it exponentially in the past few weeks and it is stunning. The subtle movements and adjustments Winston made in the pocket over the past four games have been some of the most impressive displays of poise and control that I have ever seen. That is not hyperbole, either.

JameisQ2-2015-13

A New York Giants blitzer gets free through the B-gap (between guard and tackle) and barrels down at Jameis. Winston does not falter one bit. He trusts his feet to get him where he needs to be, he trusts that his man will be open and he trusts that he will get the throw off in time and to his man. Winston’s confidence is unrivaled. To not flinch at all, knowing he is about to get it, is rare. The written word does not do Winston’s control enough justice; Winston’s demeanor as a player is generational.

For the sake of context, this four game stretch may be Winston’s peak for the year because it was the lowest caliber of defenses they faced, but that does not nullify the things Winston did. Conversely, to show this level of eminence as a rookie should never happen no matter the competition, yet Winston did it. He sustained it over multiple games and situations. Winston is going to show a bit of stumbling over the remainder of the year, but he has made the league aware of him and what he is- an exceptionally rare talent.

NFL Quarterbacking’s (Unlikely) Future

Every team sucks. Every offense sucks. Every quarterbacks sucks, except for the few that don’t. Though even Jason Pierre-Paul could count the number of upper tier quarterbacks on his hands, there is, in theory, a way to create a league with more good quarterback play. Well, a league with less poor quarterback play, at least. As backwards as it is, the key to developing a league with better professional quarterback play may be to have less professional quarterback play.

NFL quarterbacks appear to be playing worse than any other time in recent memory- the operative word being “appear”. Quarterbacks are not any less talented, per say, but a number of factors, even before entering the league, have played a part in bringing down the league wide perception of quarterbacking. This depreciation of quarterbacks has lead to a lot of questions about fixing it. For each question, there is a (hopeful) answer.

At the most surface level, there is a negative product to quarterbacks throwing more often now than they used to. The increased amount of passing attempts allows for more opportunity to make mistakes. That concept works both ways in that more attempts also gives more chances to make a good play, and that’s fair to say. At the same time, the cliche “they shout my mistakes and whisper my accomplishments” idea applies. It is perfectly logical for someone to get more fired up over a negative play because people have become accustomed to more of a quarterback’s plays being positive. In this era, coaches and fans alike are used to seeing quarterbacks end the year with about 62%-65% of completion, so it’s not odd that the minority sub-40% of the plays feel gross to see.

With part of the quarterback conundrum being that they throw too often, you would think that it would be a largely accepted idea to throw the ball less. With the exception of the Patriots, most every good team in the league this season, and even some of the better teams of the past few seasons, has prioritized running the ball, or the running backs in general. Just two years ago, a run first Seahawks team dominated in the Super Bowl and took home the Lombardi trophy. Marshawn Lynch level running backs are not easy to come by, though, and I am sure that is where the pause would be for most people. Having a running back like Lynch or Jamaal Charles is not necessary for founding an offense upon the rushing attack, though.

The NFL’s best coaches continue to adapt and evolve just before the rest of the league gets around to it, and Hue Jackson is doing that with the Bengals. Through seven weeks in the NFL, Jackson’s offense has thrown the ball 53.81% of the time, which is 26th highest (or 7th lowest) in the NFL and more than 15% less than the most pass-happy offense. Instead of forcing Andy Dalton to bear most of the burden of beating defenses, Jackson has revolved the offense around the running backs, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard.

Neither Hill or Bernard are special, upper echelon backs like the aforementioned Lynch and Charles. They are damn good, though, and compliment each other’s skill sets with impeccable harmony. Hill, who arrived one later than Bernard, is the battering ram type force that wears defenses down. A typical carry from Hill is uneventful, but the handful of yards and physical running style that he provides is a healthy constant for the Bengals. With Hill providing stability and the violent demeanor to wear down a defense, a more explosive complimentary player can deliver the knockout punches.

The athletic, do-it-all presence of Bernard is a tough one to contain. His skill set is more suited for perimeter runs and catching the ball out of the backfield, but his compact frame has just enough power behind it to be a threat between the tackles. Defenses can not game plan to stop one aspect of Bernard’s game because it would run the unfavorable risk of giving Bernard leeway elsewhere. When teams leave a weakness, Bernard exposes it. A defense that opts to play conservatively in reaction to Bernard will open itself up to aerial attacks, which is part of how Dalton has (finally) become a player that can lead the Bengals to Lombardi Land.

Better than any other team, the Bengals have centered their offense around the running backs despite not having elite talent at the running back position. A handful of other offenses, such as the Panthers and Bills, have shown varying success in prioritizing the running backs to settle the quarterback, but Dalton seems to benefit from it more than any of the other quarterbacks. The success of the back-focused approach has given him confidence, comfort and, above all else, insecurity out of opposing defenses.

For some passers, like Dalton, success is as simple as comfort and confidence in the situation around them. Other passers require a less direct approach to professional success. In recent years, stories of quarterbacks having success after a few years of sitting behind the starter are rare. Tyrod Taylor and Colin Kaepernick are the two most recent examples, but none stand out other than those two in about the last decade, unless Aaron Rodgers, who was drafted in 2004, counts. Whether he counts or not is semantics, but the point is that two or three solid developmental quarterbacks in a ten year span speaks volumes of what the league can do about helping young quarterbacks along.

Steve McNair was the third overall pick 20 years ago. McNair didn’t play ball at a Power 5 school, or even an FBS school. The one-day NFL MVP played college football at Alcorn State. The Oilers- who would become the Titans two years after drafting McNair- gave the young passer two years of limited live reps to learn the nuances of the game and get comfortable with the talent level. Just over half a decade later, McNair shared an Associated Press NFL MVP award with Peyton Manning. Developing young backup quarterbacks like this in the 90s, and even early 2000s, was a somewhat common way to find a starting quarterback. Packers and Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren made a career out of developing quarterbacks behind the starter during that span, but the best coach from his tree, Mike McCarthy has run into a wall with his development of backup quarterbacks.

Current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) terms has put harsh restraints on off-season practices, as well as preseason and regular season practices. These practices were an asset that McCarthy used wisely as a part of his annual “quarterback school” that he does for his team’s quarterbacks. His school includes anything from rigorous practicing of mechanics to writing essays about the philosophy of the offense, a test-like task McCarthy asked his quarterbacks, sans Joe Montana, to complete when McCarthy was working with the Chiefs. Four weeks of off-season training were lost in the 2011 CBA ruling, in addition to the in-season practices. The pseudo-snaps that have been lost because of the current CBA rules has made developing young quarterbacks, whose success is largely dependent on consistency and precision, a bit of a lost art. McCarthy is taking on the challenge once again with 5th round pick Brett Hundley, but unless he has adjusted his teaching to fit the limited practice time, McCarthy may end up with nothing more than a backup quarterback.

Another, less talked about issue with the quarterback famine is that active roster requirements makes it tough for teams to rationalize keeping three quarterbacks. The last few roster slots are best used as athletic special team spots because they will get a good handful of snaps per game, whereas the likeliness of a third string quarterback being needed in a single game is nonexistent. Another quarterback on the roster has value in the film room, at the very least. An extra brain and pair of eyes to come up with offensive wrinkles or point out tendencies could be huge for some teams,  especially if the third active quarterback is a veteran quarterback who can help along the young backup. Or, that third quarterback may be another young quarterback meant to spark some competition for the second string spot. Whatever the ideology is when signing a third string quarterback, the ability to do so more freely, which would likely require an expansion of the active roster to more than 53 players, could lead to a better NFL product.

Better yet, the NFL could make legitimate use of a developmental league. There have been arena leagues and there is currently a fall experimental football league (FXFL), but none of them have ever been taken seriously enough by their father league, the NFL. A few players made their way from these leagues to the NFL over the course of the years, but not near enough for those leagues to be considered true development leagues. Granted, college football is marketed more than any other college sport except basketball, so one may make the argument that college football is the developmental league, but that isn’t the case.

The goal for college football coaches and staffs is not to prepare players for the NFL gridiron. Their goal is to win games and propel the program. College football playbooks have been and always will be watered down in comparison to the pro level, but some offenses now, like Baylor, Cal, TCU and others, are so bare relative to professional playbooks that players develop vastly contradicting play habits. In college football now, there is a pandemic of poor footwork and anticipation because offenses operate primarily out of the shotgun and don’t ask the quarterback to match his eyes with certain landmarks in his drop. Instead, college quarterbacks take the snap, take no more than three choppy steps, wait on the play and then throw.

When these college quarterbacks step into the NFL realm, they are overwhelmed with the new verbiage, concepts and play style. The jump from college to professional ball is a nasty adjustment regardless, but a quarterback whose offense was a bit more traditional in college will have the familiarity advantage when trying to soak in all that is being an NFL quarterback. That is not to say that making college offenses more traditional will instantly bring life to quarterback play, though. Rather, it is a suggestion that a more representative preparation environment for the professional level would, in time, produce more sound quarterback play.

And yet, most of this rambling is but a theory. It does seem more and more likely that teams may revert back to a more run-heavy approach, especially with the bountiful supply of good running backs coming from the college circuit, but that is the only likely development in regards to improving the perception of quarterback play. The CBA and roster sizes have not been entertained lately as possible areas of change, the NFL is too greedy to coddle a developmental and college teams are not going to change their offensive styles so long as they keep scoring points like they are right now.

It is a shame that quarterback play is where it is. It’s an incredibly taxing position, true, but for there to be as many bad quarterbacks as there is, factors beyond the stress of the position are at play. Whether or not any of the changes necessary for evolving the quarterback position again is uncertain. It would be best for the league to create more entertaining quarterback play, but where, when and how to start seems like such a daunting task for those in power that we are stuck in a passer-less oblivion, waiting for the script to miraculously flip itself.

Checking Up on Jameis Winston (Part 1 of 4)

There is no need to panic about Jameis Winston yet. No, the No.1 pick is not playing better than the No.2 pick Marcus Mariota, but he is playing about as well as should have been expected of him. Winston playing with high variance is normal. Young Winston is very similar to quarterbacks like Eli Manning and Joe Flacco, where there is a lot of up and down play, but the highs are absolutely incredible while the lows are pitiful. This style of play only works if the player’s highs outweigh the lows. For Winston, they do.

Winston is a brilliant quarterback and any refutation to that take is null. In just his second regular season game, Winston was calling shifts in the run game that should have lead to huge gains. That sort of maturity should come much later in a passer’s career. Winston is well ahead of where he should be in terms of deciphering and exposing a defense. Most quarterbacks Winston’s age can not hold safeties with their eyes or catch a linebacker out of position because he is one step too wide in his alignment, but because Winston is as savvy as he is, he does this consistently.

Calculated risks are a specialty of Winston’s. If he sees a desirable match up, such as a strong, aggressive receiver facing single coverage, he tends to bite on it. Take this play versus the Saints for example.

JameisQ1-2015-3

Wide receiver Mike Evans is lined up to the bottom of the screen facing what looks to be Cover 6 disguised as Cover 1. Winston sees the lone safety lined up deep and decides to take advantage of the area that the safety is forced to cover. By staring at the receivers near the left hash, the safety has to stay put to seal off the seam. Evans now has single coverage near the boundary and Winston drops in a beautiful pass by throwing him open toward the boundary. The play was not ruled a catch because Evans failed to get two feet in despite plenty of room to do so, but that does not take away from Winston’s display.

Though, as has been a theme throughout Winston’s career, the young Buccaneer struggles more with what he sees than what he doesn’t see. Winston leaves no stone un-turned before the snap, but he likes to lock onto targets he believe will be open. While this works on most plays, sometimes the defense disguises something very well and takes away the seemingly open throw. Winston fails to look away in these situations. He is a stubborn passer, one who refuses to accept that he can not make the throw he said he was going to make. This has lead Winston to a fair share of regrettable throws.

Five games into the 2015 season, Winston has surrendered seven interceptions, four of which came in a single game versus the Panthers. The young Buc needs to show that he can play with control and keep possession of the ball well. Though New Orleans and Jacksonville failed to intercept Winston, those two defenses were the two defenses that Winston threw at the least (21 and 19 attempts, respectively). Winston has yet to have a game of more than 25 attempts without throwing an interception. The sample size is very small right now, sure, but it would be nice to see Winston prove early on that he can take care of the football for extended periods of time. With the run game seeming to gel together and Winston’s chemistry with his receivers is improving, Winston should be able to post a highly efficient, zero turnover game soon.

Speaking of chemistry, the Winston to Evans connection has come together to be much smoother than it was at the start of the season. Their route communication and deep pass connection has gotten much better, forcing defenses to respect it further and open up some room for rushing lanes. Below is a display of the fluidity the two have together on a back shoulder fade.

JameisQ1-2015-7

Winston’s connection with Vincent Jackson, however, is more like Winston treating him like a safety valve. No matter if Winston is stuck in the pocket and must throw into double coverage or is on the move and needs to get the ball out somewhere, Jackson seems to be ready to save the play. Some of the explosive plays between the two truly have been outstanding throws from Winston, but Jackson himself has made a handful of strong plays as well.

JameisQ1-2015-4

JameisQ1-2015-6

JameisQ1-2015-9

These are only a fraction of the impressive plays that Winston and Jackson have made together. Winston proved that he can shine when the chips are down on a given play and deliver the ball to a veteran play maker. Though, it is not the on-the-fly traits that are to be worried about with Winston, it is some of his in-the-pocket traits.

No, the issue is not that Winston has a fear of rushers in the pocket. In fact, he is very good at handling rushers and keeping himself clean. The issue is the fashion in which he moves his feet. Sure, Winston knows where his second or third read is on a play, but his feet do not follow his progressions well at all.

JameisQ1-2015-11

Gross. He is all over the place. Winston’s scrambled movement made him plant his front foot far too wide of his target, altering the way his hips and torso rotate. Due to his foot alignment, Winston’s rotation is much stiffer and he can not control his weight as well, and that is what lead to the ball landing nowhere near the intended receiver. There have been instances where Winston’s timing and resetting looks fine, but he is often too preoccupied on moving his upper body when adjusting through his progressions. Being that he is a rookie and has shown brilliance in a number of other areas, I would not force him synchronize all of these things well just yet. It took him a year of play to tune up his mechanics in college, he may very well need that development year in the NFL as well.

Winston’s highs are unbelievable and his lows are near unbearable. Ideally, Winston will learn to limit how often he hits his low sooner rather than later, but it would be expected to see Winston play out of control a bit for at least his rookie season. Winston will learn what he is and is not capable of doing, then, in theory, we will see less of Winston’s low points. As a young quarterback, Winston’s play at his best is well worth his play at his worst. If there is any adjustment Winston will make later this season, it will be holding back from blatantly terrible throws. Winston will always be high variance, though, to some extent. If nothing else, Winston’s variance will be entertaining for the remainder of the year.

GIF Gallery – Jameis Winston (1 of 4)

Checking Up on Marcus Mariota (Part 1 of 4)

The start to the 2015 NFL season has been interesting, to say the least. New star players, holdouts, terrible game-deciding calls and, the weirdest of it all, Andy Dalton looks good throwing a football- this season has it all. With “new star players” in mind, Marcus Mariota has had quite the start to his rookie campaign. In his first game, Mariota threw for four touchdowns, joining Fran Tarkenton as one of the only two rookie quarterbacks to throw for four touchdowns on opening weekend. Mariota has thrown for eight touchdowns in the first four games, setting him on pace to beat Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson’s rookie passing touchdown record (26). Whether he will put himself in the record books again is uncertain, but Mariota has shown more than enough to put faith in him moving forward this season.

No matter how you dice it, the system that Mariota runs is critical to how much you are going to get out of him. The thing is, this is true of most players, especially rookie players. It is true that Mariota needs his role (#task #oriented), but it is also true that he has executed the offense he is in very well. To this point, he has only thrown two interceptions, one of which was a well placed throw that the receiver bobbled and gave to the defense. What’s most impressive is that this low interception number is not necessarily because he isn’t aggressive.

Tennessee’s offense throws short often by design. Whether it be quick slants, screens or RPOs (run-play options), the ball is coming out of Mariota’s hands fast. For the most part, Mariota has done well scanning the field pre-snap to find the open play and take it. This is what Mariota needs. He is a smart, twitchy player that can thrive by beating the defense with his mind and executing the play with swift precision. With these quick throws being the core of the offense, Mariota’s “open up” plays are typically intermediate/deep crossers, and he has not held back in throwing them.

At Oregon, Mariota had lapses where he did not seem sure of a throw and he would get gun shy. This still worked at the college level versus slower defensive backs, but in the NFL, waiting just a tad longer is the difference between touchdown and interception. Mariota has not shown that hesitancy much this year, even looking somewhat aggressive when plays did not ask him to get the ball out fast. It would be nice to see him drop back a bit more and stress teams vertically more than he does, but again, it’s tough to knock Mariota for his play style considering the results, to this point.

It is also likely that the simplification in play style does not last to this severity for his entire career. It may be because he is a young rookie. This approach worked recently with RG3, or at least it should have. RG3 had a wonderful rookie year because he had an offense tailored for him and that gave him confidence moving forward. That confidence was shattered by injuries and ignorant coaching staffs, but the blueprint is there. Mariota is going to stick prominently with what he is comfortable with for his first couple of years, then we will begin to see him open up the field more often.

Though, if Mariota wants to open things up more in his career, he needs to be able to scan the field better post-snap. Pre-snap, Mariota maps plays out very well, but defenses are going to throw disguises at him, or completely botch their coverage, and he needs to identify that and adjust. Take, for example, this throw versus the Browns.

MariotaQ1-2015-1

Pre-snap, Mariota sees that he will have one-on-one coverage on the boundary and he likes his teammate’s chance of winning that play. Mariota drops back and fires just as the route is about to break. The opposing cornerback stays glued to the receiver and defends the pass. Just underneath the pass Mariota actually threw, he had an open shallow crosser that would have easily gone for a handful of yards. The problem seems to be that Mariota doesn’t know the linebacker who dropped from the line of scrimmage has no idea there is a shallow crosser behind him until the receiver is past him. Thankfully, Mariota is right so often pre-snap that these occasions are not too common. That does not excuse him from developing a more natural feel after the snap in the future, but it gives him a cushion for now.

The factor that seems to nullify most of Mariota’s troubles is his accuracy. At Oregon, Mariota’s ball placement was a bit of a roller coaster, albeit his “on” moments were quite special. Mariota’s ball placement in the NFL thus far has been more consistent than it was in Eugene. Both in and out of the pocket, Mariota plays as in form as he can. If he is sticking in the pocket, he keeps his feet under him with every movement to keep a solid base. On the move, Mariota does his best to square his frame before throwing in order to more easily hit his man on the run. Mariota is always giving himself the best conditions to succeed.

Sometimes, Mariota’s natural talent puts him in the best conditions to win. Athleticism is Mariota’s best friend, even when he doesn’t necessarily intend for it to be. On sprint outs and boots, Mariota’s quick feet and athleticism maximize the play. He works to the top of the drop and then back up field with ease, meaning he is in position to make a good throw before most other quarterbacks would be on those types of plays.

MariotaQ1-2015-4

In this example, Mariota does not have to work back up field. He only has to drop and rollout, but he is doing so against a blitzing linebacker. Even with the linebacker’s immediate jump on the play, Mariota explodes out of his stance to the top of his drop, giving him plenty of room to get the ball out to the flats for a touchdown. Also, to bring up an earlier point, Mariota squares his frame on the move and puts the throw where it needs to be. Between his natural gifts and his ingrained drive for perfection, Mariota has a true gift in the way he is always creating the best environment to succeed.

There is still plenty of football left this season, but Mariota has a very strong case for offensive rookie of the year. If he keeps his current pace up, there is no doubt he will win the award. He is playing smart, poised and accurate, all of which are key ingredients to being an upper echelon quarterback. Mariota is not “upper echelon” yet, but he has all the makings to be and the start of his career has provided endless reasons to believe in him.

GIF Gallery – Marcus Mariota (Q1 of 2015 NFL season)

The Offensive Minds That Did Not Ruin My Life

For as many villains as we create in our desired industry, we create just as many idols that we aspire to be. These idols, for me, are quite unlike men like Dave Schramm and James Franklin. They are innovative, brilliant and cunning, yet none of what they do is particularly revolutionary or odd. All of them run efficient offenses that birthed some of the most exciting quarterback play that we have seen in the past five years or so, not to mention how well their offenses can run the ball. There is a wide number of offensive minds that I could point to as having some influence on me or that I simply admire, though there are three who are quite special to me.

Chip Kelly, Gus Malzahn and Kyle Shanahan are three of the best offensive minds that football has to offer. All three of their offenses differ from each other, yet the same general principle is the same: find the easiest way to create space. Kelly’s passing attack and tempo elevated Oregon to the national spotlight and earned him an NFL job with the Eagles. Malzahn’s blend of old-style and new-style football birthed Cam Newton’s special Heisman season and has continued to make Auburn a force in the SEC. Lastly, Shanahan, my personal favorite, has put his spin on a handful of simple concepts to make them special.

For quite some time, it was common for Kelly’s offense to be called a gimmick. It is not a gimmick. Much like a high functioning West Coast offense, the key to Kelly’s passing attack is execution. In simple terms, Kelly’s offense is a numbers game. He is trying to move players and align them such that his quarterback can pick the advantage pre-snap and roll with it. Due to the nature of Kelly wanting to always find the numbers advantage, a building block in his offense is the idea of packaged plays, or RPOs (run/pass options). Most commonly, this will package something like inside zone, an interior running play, with a quick screen.

Kelly RPO

This an example of a typical RPO set up. In this situation, Kelly would want to motion/shift the tight end out to tighten the 3 x 1 trey. With this motion/shift, the linebacker will either show man and follow him or show zone and stay put. If the linebacker vacates the box, the offense has the numbers advantage in the box to run. If the linebacker stays, there is a 3 vs 2 passing advantage to the right side of the formation.

Kelly RPO IZ Kelly RPO bubble

On the left, the linebacker moved from the box and gave the offense room to run, whereas the linebacker stayed put on the left, which could allow for any number of quick throws to that side.

These plays are forcing defenses to beat themselves, which may be where the “gimmick” feeling comes from. As outstanding an idea packaged plays are, they are no gimmick. Packaged plays can be more complex than this and work even better with a quarterback who is a threat to run (look at what Tennessee is doing with Marcus Mariota), but even old man Peyton Manning can run packaged plays and he did last season.

The secondary aspect to what makes Kelly successful is the effect of his tempo. Early on in games, the tempo is more of a nuisance than anything as players are still, for the most part, fresh and ready to play. By the time the second half rolls around, defenses are winded and can not keep up with the quick hitting throws and brute force of the inside zone. Granted, this season has not been the greatest testament to Kelly’s genius, but that is largely due to the fact that the personnel he chose at both guard positions are horrendous. His scheme does have an Achiles heel in the sense that the execution must be very sound, but Kelly has certainly found a wonderful way to attack defenses.

With a few similarities to Kelly from a philosophical standpoint, Malzahn is a little more old school. Malzahn’s offense may run out of the shotgun, but for all intents and purposes, much of Malzahn’s offense resembles the Wing-T.

MalzahnT

Here, Malzahn stacks two tight ends on the right side of the formation, one behind the guard/tackle almost like a fullback, and has one back at either side of the quarterback. The play action here is meant to look like a stretch play with a pulling lineman. With as brutalizing as Auburn’s rushing attack can be, LSU bites hard on the fake, though once they forget the fake, they leave one player unaccounted for.

The running back meant to kick out the defender had it been a real run play is able to slip the defenders near the line of scrimmage on a wheel route. With the receiver on the side of the formation running a go route to clear out room, the wheel is left wide open for a huge gain. Though, the brilliance of this all is simply the formation.

There are so many things Malzahn could do out of this formation. For one, he has power to the right side of the formation, so a zone run would pick up a nice gain. Auburn could also run a read-option in which No.11 kicks out to the left side to clear out one of the defenders at the second level. They could run a pitch-sweep to the strong side. Heck, even a quarterback power out of this formation would be dangerous, though plowing through piles was not exactly Nick Marshall’s strength.

MalzahnT2

Cam Newton, on the other hand, had a knack for quarterback power. This is not the most successful example I could have pulled, but the general idea of the concept is here. One side of the formation brings a pulling lineman to kick out the defender and clear the rushing lane. This play did not work quite like it was drawn up because the running back is not able to drive on his block, though Newton, as strong as he is, still comes out of this play with about five yards. That is a successful play.

Now, Malzahn is not the first or only offensive mind to do this, it is just that there are very few others who are able to successfully incorporate the concept like Malzahn can. Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen are the other two major names that have had a good deal of success from this play, using Tim Tebow/Cardale Jones and Dak Prescott, respectively, as human bulldozers.

Another small note that is interesting about Malzahn is that his claim to fame was littered with high-powered passing offenses, much like he had at Arkansas State just before he ended up at Auburn. Centralizing his attack around the run was new to Malzahn, yet he brilliantly adapted and has since been one of the most brilliant offensive minds in college football.

Adaptation is a quality that young Shanahan possesses as well. Shanahan is emerging as one of the best offensive coordinators in the NFL. For some time, the narrative seemed to be that his dad, who he coached under in Washington, was why he was getting as much attention as he was. As the past few years have unfolded, it is evident that Kyle Shanahan is brilliant in his own right.

What Shanahan did with Robert Griffin from a schematic standpoint was outstanding. He simplified reads, fed off of play action and kept RG3 moving. This simple blend enabled RG3 to stretch the field, both with his arm and his legs, well enough to earn a rookie of the year award. Sadly, RG3 battled injury and was never able to replicate his success, but Shanahan had the perfect system in place for him. That said, it is Shanahan’s post-Washington career that really caught my attention.

For the most part, Cleveland’s offense was talentless outside of the offensive line. Brian Hoyer was the quarterback, there was a carousel of running backs and the only dynamic receiver was Josh Gordon, who missed part of the year via suspension. Despite all of that mess, Cleveland fielded a respectable offense because of Shanahan’s ability to create space.

This is a smart way to run the counter. Instead of an elongated hand off that wastes time, Shanahan gets the ball to the back quickly and lets him dictate the speed of the plat. Once the entire defense is flowing to the right side to defend what looks like power, the running back follows the fullback cutting across the formation. The fullback seals off the box defender and gives the running back room to pick up seven or eight yards.

There is a great deal more I could say about Shanahan, though I have already done so: http://www.footballsavages.com/kyle-shanahan-one-leagues-best-coordinators/. That piece was written about a year ago when I first became attached to what Shanahan was accomplishing in Cleveland. It goes over a lot of his foundation concepts, both run and pass.

Kelly, Malzahn and Shanahan have been the three most positively influential offensive minds that I have gotten the privilege to see. Though, as I said earlier, there are many other great offensive minds out there that I appreciate, including Josh McDaniels, Gary Kubiak, Sean Payton, Mike McCoy and Hue Jackson, to name a handful. If there is anything/anyone that I strive to be like, it is any of those three critical figures. All of them are masterful and have touched me in a way that attracted me to the profession, and for that I thank them.

The Offensive Minds That Ruined My Life

For those who have a passion for that they do, their drive for success tends to be in the underlying belief that they can do better than those who already have that job. In my case, that dream job and passion is offensive coordinating, and that belief is strong with me. Over the past three years or so, I started to take football more seriously, viewing it as less of a game and more of an outlet for myself. In studying the game closer, one begins to understand and appreciate the more driving factors of the game, namely play design and play calling. As I went on learning and watching football, these driving factors became my passion, and so villians in the field were created.

Dave Schramm and James Franklin- these are the men that compel me to do what I want to do. In this order, these two offensive minds have made me miserable at some point in the past few years, and one of them still does. Analyzing Derek Carr running Schramm’s offense was hellacious due to Schramm’s ignorance and redundancy. Similarly, Franklin brought his high school offense to Penn State and forced it upon a much more advanced quarterback, sparking a large disconnect and regression from America’s should-have-been poster boy Christian Hackenberg.

At the core, these two are the same evil. Their offenses are founded on (very) high percentage passing, inside zone and stripping power from the quarterback. Others that fit this description, such as UCLA’s Noel Mazzone, do a much better job of being creative and manufacturing space, whereas Schramm and Franklin’s offenses are as bland as a box of Cheerios. That being said, there are a handful of differences between the two, albeit both of them still being completely incompetent.

In his final two years at Fresno State, Carr threw the ball 1,170 times in 26 games, good for a staggering 45 throws per game. Had Carr been throwing a multitude of concepts, spreading the field and keeping the game interesting, it would not have been such a drag to watch. Of course, instead of any sort of creativity, Schramm’s offense was largely the same three plays: wide receiver screen, a pre-determined “go” route throw and inside zone, which is an interior running play. Though, with Fresno State having an abysmal offensive line and mediocre talent at the running back position, the inside zone was not used in “normal” volume. Schramm instead used screens as his extensions of the running game, so to see Carr throw 15-20 screens in a game was not uncommon.

Where this dumbed down scheme became most infuriating is that it seemingly stunted Carr’s growth as a player. Aside from the lack of exposure to natural pocket play, Carr’s intelligence was being put to waste. In the small sample of plays in which Carr was truly asked to step back and read the field, he shredded zone coverages and found the open man with ease, often using veteran-like eye movement and well timed pump fakes. Intelligent quarterbacks do not come around near as often as they should and for one to have been, for lack of a better word, wasted like Carr was, is a shame.

As if Schramm could not possibly have been any worse, he left Carr out to die quite often. Most of what Schramm had installed did not have any sort of failsafe vs an impending blitz. The most glaring example of this was Fresno State’s game against San Diego State in Carr’s senior year. SDSU consistently showed five, six or even seven rushers, yet Schramm kept calling for four and five receiver sets with no extra blockers. If you can do the math (Schramm could not), Carr was at a large disadvantage for any throw that was not an immediate screen. To no surprise, this was one of Carr’s worst performances and one many of his disbelievers often pointed to as an example of his fear of rushers. Carr did look frightened in that game, but free rushers on every other snap is going to scare any passer.

Since Carr’s departure, Schramm has made marginal strides to open up the offense, though it is still largely monotonous. Fresno State does not have the quarterback talent to open up any further regardless, but Schramm’s legacy will always be that he did nothing with the talented quarterback that was handed to him.

To that same note, the glaring flaw with Franklin is that he too has done nothing with a talented quarterback. In fact, Hackenberg was a star his freshman year under Bill O’Brien and he looked like a bonafide stud, but the monotony and simplicity of Franklin’s offense has killed Hackenberg’s drive as a player. It is a backwards situation. More often, the system/player clash roots in the quarterback not being smart enough to run the system, whereas Hackenberg is too smart and advanced for Franklin’s pedestrian offense.

Franklin’s offense has a bit more to it than Schramm’s did, though Franklin’s questionable play calling balances the equation. Most of the passes in Franklin’s offense are screens, quick slants and hitches. In other words, it is a simplified West Coast offense, yet it lacks the key element to a West Coast offense: synchronization. A West Coast offense is designed for the quarterback to hit a certain step at the same time his receiver hits a specific depth or makes his break, theoretically creating an impeccable timing dynamic that the defense can not stop. Franklin’s offense tends to ask the quarterback to make just one step, wait on the throw and then pass the ball. Hackenberg does not work well under those conditions.

If there is anything we learned from Hackenberg during his year under O’Brien, it is that he works much better when the play correlates with where he is in his drop. When routes are breaking at the top of his drop or he is able to move to his next progression during a hitch up in the pocket, Hackenberg clicks. This is why a more traditional 5-step drop based system fit Hackenberg more than a 1-step based drop system does. Alas, Franklin could not make any sort of adjustment to the talent he was given and has left those talents to rot.

Franklin’s system alone is an infuriating watch, but his situational play calling is the cherry on top of his mess of an offense. Namely, Franklin is a menace to himself on third down. As opposed to putting the ball in the hands of his most naturally talented player, Hackenberg, Franklin often opts for inside zone- an even more head scratching decision considering Penn State’s offensive line. Time and time again, Franklin fails to convert on third down through his stubborn approach and he has yet to think that maybe, just maybe, letting the quarterback make a play on third down is the best bet, unless it is a very short yardage situation.

More or less, the issue I have with both of these offensive minds is that they have done an outstanding job at stunting, or even reversing, a talented quarterback’s growth. Seeing as quarterbacks are my pride and joy, restricting one of the few quarterbacks with talent is an unforgivable offense. While I have a great deal of brilliant offensive minds that inspire me to become an offensive coordinator, like Chip Kelly, Kyle Shanahan and Gus Malzahn, the blemishes in the industry like Dave Schramm and James Franklin drive me to be something better.